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Shingles vs. Chickenpox. What’s the Difference?

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You may have heard that only kids can get chickenpox, while only older adults can get shingles. Or perhaps you’ve heard it said that it’s the same virus, but it’s given a different name, whether the patient is a child or a senior. We’re here to set the record straight on the differences between shingles and chickenpox so that you can protect your loved ones, of all ages, from the discomfort that comes from this itchy, painful condition.

What is Chicken Pox?

The varicella-zoster virus causes the infection we know as chickenpox. Symptoms include an itchy rash marked by tiny, fluid-filled red blisters. The rash often appears 10 to 21 days after virus exposure and typically lasts from five to ten days. During the total period in which symptoms are present, the rash typically evolves through three distinct phases:

  • During the first several days, the rash often appears as raised pink or red papules (bumps)
  • Next, small fluid-filled vesicles (blisters) form over a day, which then break and leak
  • The broken blisters then scab over, taking several days to heal

Since new bumps continue to form until the virus is destroyed, patients may have bumps on their skin in all three phases at once.

Other symptoms of chickenpox include:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache
  • Tiredness and malaise

Chickenpox patients can spread the virus to others up to 48 hours before the rash appears and remain contagious until all broken blisters have scabbed over. The infection is highly contagious for those individuals who have never had chickenpox or who have never been vaccinated against it, which is why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends routine vaccination of children against the varicella-zoster virus.

While chickenpox is often thought of as a childhood illness, adults can contract the virus too, and when they do, their symptoms may be more severe.

What is Shingles?

Like chickenpox, shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus that creates a painful rash. Unlike the chickenpox rash, which can form all over the body, the shingles rash typically appears as a single stripe of blisters around one side of the torso.

In addition to the painful rash, shingles symptoms may include:

  • A painful, burning, numbness or tingling that for some is intensely uncomfortable
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • An itchy, red rash that begins a few days after the first pain symptoms
  • Fluid-filled blisters that break and scab, as with chickenpox
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Fatigue

It is possible for someone who had chickenpox to develop shingles later in life. In patients who have had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus lies dormant in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain. It can reactivate in the form of the shingles virus years later.

If not properly treated, shingles can result in health complications, including a condition called postherpetic neuralgia, in which a patient experiences shingles pain for a long time after the blisters have healed.

Also, like chickenpox, there is a CDC-recommended vaccine for shingles; however, it is recommended for seniors rather than children.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

If you or a loved one has developed a red, painful rash, talk to your doctor. Whether it is chickenpox, shingles, or another condition, your doctor will diagnose the cause and recommend a treatment plan. Further, if you have any questions regarding recommended vaccines for chickenpox and shingles, and when you, your child, or senior parent may be eligible, talk to your doctor.